BARRINGTON — For 26 years, school crossing guard Fred Welstead stood sentry on busy suburban streets, safely guiding children walking and cycling to and from school with a watchful eye, a gentle smile and a hand stop sign.
“The kids are basically well-behaved, very courteous, and they always say ‘thank you,'” said Welstead, a Korean War veteran and retired commercial photographer, who recently celebrated his 89th birthday at his guardhouse on Lake Cook Road in Barington.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of Illinois schools in March 2020 sidelined Welstead from his brigadier gig. He is excited to resume his regular activities, which begin at 4:45 a.m., when he wakes up at the Mundelein ranch house he once shared with his wife and two sons.
Welstead, whose wife, Phyliss, died in 2010 after nearly 50 years of marriage, has lived alone these days since the death of his 17-year-old poodle, Remy, a dear friend who was never far from him.
Although Welstead loves his religious community and stops by the local senior center, where he had fish dinner on a recent afternoon, he said his job as a school crossing guard gives meaning and purpose to his weekdays. , which are punctuated by two shifts – before school. and after school – at his post adjacent to Arnett C. Lines Elementary School and Barrington Middle School Station Campus.
Welstead is usually on the scene long before the students start arriving, and in cold weather he can be seen waiting in his green SUV or red Cadillac, before emerging in his parka and neon yellow vest ready to start. his shift.
A critical shortage of school crossing guards across the United States underscores the appreciation of reliable, experienced workers like Welstead, especially given the benefits walking and biking to school have on students’ physical and emotional health, said Cassandra Isidro, executive director of the Fairfax, Virginia-based Safe Routes Partnership.
“School crossing guards have always been one of the least filled and most advertised positions, mostly because there aren’t a lot of hours and often a pretty low pay scale,” Isidro said.
“You need to find someone who is the kind of person who really loves work, who is not afraid of being cold and wet and who understands that the work is not easy,” Isidro added. .
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As a field supervisor at Andy Frain Services, Karisma Townsend visited Welstead, one of his employees, this month at his post to hand-deliver a birthday card and wish him well.
“Fred lived a good life and a long life, and you have to celebrate that,” Townsend said.
“It can be hard to find school crossing guards because it’s only about two hours a day, but I think that’s what keeps him going,” Townsend said. “He cares, he’s dedicated and he doesn’t take a day off unless he has a doctor’s appointment.”
The part-time job is a far cry from Welstead’s distinguished military service in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, which included photographing American planes that crashed or were shot down, and Jeeps that rolled over on bumpy roads.
After the war, Welstead briefly returned to his hometown of Napoleon, Ohio, before traveling to Los Angeles to study photography, and eventually moving to Chicago. Here he quickly found work photographing conventions and met the woman who would become his wife at a Bellwood nightclub.
Yet his memories of the war years and his photos of celebrities – he recalls meeting actors Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore at a convention in Chicago – have faded over time. These days, Welstead said he remains focused on his health, including lifting weights at the Arlington Heights LA Fitness gym between shifts.
For Emily Kerous, a mother of three from Barrington, knowing that Welstead would be watching over her children as they crossed Lake Cook Road on their way to school helped her calm down during a recent operation.
“I knew he would be there at the crosswalk. … He’s always quick and always there,” Kerous said. “Rain or shine, Mr. Fred is there with such a kind, calm, pleasant presence.”
Kerous’ daughter Carrigan, 11, said: ‘Mr. Fred doesn’t talk much, but he’s very nice.
“One of the things I noticed is that he always waits for us to cross the street before letting traffic go,” she added.
Of course, Welstead’s birthday was also recognized by families from line and station schools, who decorated the school crossing guard’s post with balloons and delivered cards and cookies.
“Every student 4 and up now carries a cell phone. … Sometimes kids run into trees when texting, so I have to remind them to be careful,” said Welstead, who added that although he appreciates the students and their families, he has grown tired of the bad weather, and plans to leave his post at the end of the school year.
“I don’t think the kids have really changed much, but I would say they’ve become more courteous over time,” he said.
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